The Bean Blog (currently on hiatus)

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Words That Describe Me

I don't often let my mind travel down this path, because it is a train of thought that bothers me. But sometimes I find myself thinking about these words anyway. I feel my irritation grow, and I shake my fist at the sky, and then I distract myself with something else because there is nothing I can do about it. I'm talking about the nouns that indicate who I am at my most basic. Namely, a human. A closer look at that word will reveal that the dominant part of it is man. Are men the only true representatives of our species? Another word, person. This word is broken down quite obviously to per son. Are men the only ones who count? And of course there is history. Are mens lives the only ones worth remembering? Worth telling?

When I move away from these basic indicators of life and to the subdivision that I belong to, I still find no relief. I am a woman. I am female. Even my identity as other only puts me squarely under the thumb as being part of what a man is. My words, woman, female, cannot exist independently of man and male.

I would like to pause here and let you all know not to be concerned. I am not a femi-nazi who pleads with the powers that be to change the spelling of woman to womyn or wommin. These thoughts do not consume me nor keep me up at night. And yes, yes, I know the arguments of social context and modern usage. But on the surface, for me, those arguments seem a little...defensive. A little, "Okay, you caught me, I am oppressing you. But come on. You know that I don't really mean it!"

As there's nothing I can really do about it, apart from the aforementioned petition for womyn (which just seems silly to me), I take what solace I can get in words like girl and lady. I am not a linguist, but these words do not seem to depend on a male-indentified words to me. We can exist outside of that sphere, although in a very imited capacity.

I am usually drawn down this path of thought when I am confronted not with the English words I have been writing about here, but rather when I am confronted with French. French is much, much worse than English. In French, the word for girl is fille. This is also the word for daughter. The word for woman is femme. This is also the word for wife. The implication here is staggering. Girls and women are only daughters and wives, both roles that implicitly connote a dependence and identity based on their relation to men. You cannot be a daughter without a father. You cannot be a wife without a husband. Even if these men are dead, they are still identifying who you are as a person.

On the other hand, the French word for boy is garçon and the word for son is fils. The word for man is homme and the word for husband is mari. Boys and men are not only sons and husbands. They have lives, identities, separate from those that tie them to women. If French men were in the same boat with French women, if they too were only boys/sons and men/husbands, I would think that the words reflected an archaic time, but at least there was parity. Alas no. The truth is that the French could not be bothered to come up with another word for girl, another word for woman. Who cares? You're some man's daughter; you're some man's wife. That is who you are. And why would you want more?

I guess what I'm getting at here is that French makes me think that English isn't so bad after all.

17 Comments:

  • Interesting points. I don't think I ever fully registered that about the French language.

    Still, I guess you can take solace from the the fact that emancipation has progrssed far enough that such imbalance wouldn't be allowed to occur today. It's a relic of the past, and not a reflection on current attitudes. (Though I would never suggest such sexist attitudes have completely gone...)

    By Blogger Fyse, at 11:58 AM, January 26, 2005  

  • Holy gosh gollys... I never thought about being anything other than just me. I wonder what that's worth? ~;^)

    By Blogger foxymama, at 3:10 PM, January 26, 2005  

  • Guys are jerks.

    By Blogger Chuck, at 4:06 PM, January 26, 2005  

  • Have you taken a Women's Studies class, Oz? Your ideas reflect a lot of the ideas I learned about in my class. If you haven't yet, I'd recommend it. I think you'd enjoy it.

    By Blogger Whimsy Chick, at 7:58 PM, January 26, 2005  

  • What about this though...

    persone "human being" (12c., Fr. personne), from L. persona "human being," originally "character in a drama, mask," possibly borrowed from Etruscan phersu "mask." This may be related to Gk. Persephone.

    and the etemology of "son" comes from the Sanskrit'sauti' which means "gives birth" and Old Irish 'suth' which means "birth, offspring"

    So, 'person' has its roots in a female goddess, the most beautiful goddess whos return from Hades signalled new birth and Spring. The word 'son' comes from words that describe only that which a woman can produce.

    I'm not saying that this makes your points invalid or unworthy...totally not saying that.

    I'm just saying that it is interesting to look at how women were treated in ancient societies. Studies show for example that women in ancient Egypt had the same legal rights as man and depending on their class were fairly litterate for such an ancient society. How they were actually treated however is less certain.

    My point being the role of women that we today perhaps think of as an inevitable and unchanging role are actually variable depending upon cultural and historial influences. We've already seen the results of women, and a few men, advocating on behalf of women, altering the role women fulfill in our society. If it weren't for people like you thinking and discussing these kinds of things, this progress wouldn't be possible.

    By Blogger Wheelson, at 2:46 AM, January 27, 2005  

  • Fyse, Yes indeed, that's the "social context/modern usage" argument that I referred to in the post. However, like I said, I think the argument is a bit hollow. I mean, it's hard to say words and yet not mean their implication. This is an extreme example, but it's sort of like calling an African-American person the "N" word. Back in the 1950s, it was common for white people to refer to black people this way. And I'm sure many of them would have said, "Oh, I don't mean anything by it. To me, it only means 'black,' and nothing derrogatory." Obviously, African-Americans have rejected this argument.

    Foxy, I'm quite surprised at your response, considering the many posts you have written about words.

    Chuck, That wasn't quite the point of my post, but I appreciate the sentiment anyway. :)

    Kerrie, I have taken a couple of women's studies classes. I don't mean to imply that I think my post contains original thoughts. No, many have had these questions/concerns. Actually, I'm not a big fan of women's studies classes for two reasons. One, I don't like to shake my fist at the sky. Two, I don't really like hearing about how bad I have it. LOL

    Wheelson, It's interesting that you bring up a Greek myth. There's one about some guy (I can't remember who) who kills his mother. Now, killing a relative was really, really bad, and you were persecuted forever by nasty spirits or some such thing. So he took it to court in front of the Olympian gods and stated that his mother was not actually his relative. Much debate ensued until it was agreed (!) that he was right. His mother was NOT his relative. No, the only agent that acted in creating him was his father's sperm. His mother's body only housed him until he could survive on his own, but she was not related to him. The primary argument was Athena's existence, who was born from her father's head and had no mother. So clearly, a mother wasn't necessary to create a human.

    As for the root of "per" coming from the Greek for "character in a drama, mask," let's not forget that only men were allowed to act in Greek dramas. And as for Persephone, her life was completely controlled by two men, and she had no say in the matter nor in her destiny. Hardly a poster child for women's rights.

    And lastly, I just want to point out that I never said that the views of women were static or unchanging. Clearly, we have more rights and freedoms than we did 100 years ago or even 50 years ago. Things are moving in the right direction...for now.

    (PS Wheelson, I hope you don't feel like I am attacking you, because that's not my intention. The fatal flaw with email/comments is that it is so hard to convey tone, which I hope came off in a friendly discussion kind of way. :) )

    By Blogger Oz, at 1:33 PM, January 27, 2005  

  • I think the social context and modern usage arguments do have a certain validity. You used the 'n' word as an example, but the big difference is that this word was and is still being used explicitly as an insult. I don't think 'woman' is, at least not such that the 'man' reference is relevant. After all, it's what people mean and understand by a word that's important, not the origin of the particular letters / sounds that constitute it.

    By Blogger Fyse, at 5:09 PM, January 27, 2005  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger Oz, at 6:04 PM, January 27, 2005  

  • Fyse, I posted something kind of lengthy, but now I think I will abbreviate that comment to, "We'll have to agree to disagree on this one."

    By Blogger Oz, at 9:27 PM, January 27, 2005  

  • Ozzilyn I don't feel that you're attacking me at all. You offered some very good additional information. Getting other's viewpoints is what is so nice about conversing with fellow bloggers. I hear ya about email being a limiting way to communicate though. Studies have shown that when we communicate via email we loose something like 75% of the "bandwidth" available to us when we are face to face. All that lost body language and intonation in our voice can get email/blog writers into trouble.

    That is some interesting information to consider when thinking bout this. Maybe as a man I have conviently forgotten about it? That or maybe I slept too much during classes where we talked about Greek Mythology.

    The thing about a mythological or supernatural explanation as to what role a mother plays in birth is very interesting. Sure that's ancient history but I can still see its implications still today. Despite what science later says about those things, there's always people who just want at least a few little men in the TV.

    By Blogger Wheelson, at 5:43 PM, January 28, 2005  

  • Agree to disagree? I always think that's such a shame. Puts a premature end to a good discussion. Still, I'm sure any bone of contention is relatively minor.

    By Blogger Fyse, at 7:13 PM, January 28, 2005  

  • Miracously, French women rarely have a problem with all this. They understand that men and women play their equal and separate roles in society, just as they allways have.
    They never seem to strike me as anything less than confident, elegant and knowing examples of their kind, a beacon to all others.
    Oh yeah, I've got it bad for French women.

    Todd Vodka
    http://www.blithelywego.blogspot.com

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:33 PM, January 29, 2005  

  • Fyse, Well, I don't want to argue, especially via the written word because so much can be misinterpreted. I've made my basic case and you've made yours. My opinions on your argument are clear from both my post and my original response to you. If you disagree....well, so be it! :)

    Todd, Men often think that French women have a great attitude. A good friend of mine went at length to describe to me how a mutual French woman friend of ours "understood her place as a woman" when she lived in France. Now that she's been in America for five years, she "no longer does" and is unappealing to him. I can't argue with him that her attitudes have changed. I remember being stunned by a conversation I had with her 10 years ago in which she was annoyed that women wanted to attend West Point because "men were better at that sort of thing and women should just stay out of it." So while I agree with you that she never contemplated the impact of the uni-words for woman/wife, girl/daughter, I have to disagree with you that it had no impact.

    By Blogger Oz, at 4:41 AM, January 30, 2005  

  • I haven't commented for awhile, so I thought, with me holding a minor in Linguistics, I should speak up. You can't imagine (or perhaps you can) how many times I've heard discussions similar to this one argued over and over again in my contextual and historical linguistic courses. A divisive word would be brought up for discussion (i.e. the N-word, slut vs. stud, etc.) and the battle lines would be drawn. The class would argue back and forth and back and forth, going further and further back into a particular word's etymology to prove their point.

    The trouble with this practice is that each time you take a step back in historical perspective, you lose context. For instance, the N-word has it's origins in the word "negro/e" (no capitalization), which has its root in Spanish word "negro," which mean "black". Originally, the word was used as a descriptor (read adjective), not an oppressive noun. That's language in its purest form. Language is a means, whether written or spoken, of communication. The Spaniards who treked through Africa needed a way to describe the people they encountered, so they relied on their native tongue. I suppose had the British coined the term, we'd be calling it the B-word as opposed to the N-word.

    Anyway, what I'm getting at is this: you can argue a word as much as you like, but by using etymological histories for each word you're creating a fallacy of misplaced context. I don't think by any stretch of the imagination that English speakers use words such as person, human, history, the default masculine pronoun, etc. with the intent or implication of oppressing and/or subjugating the female sex.

    I met Mary Daly after one of her "dick-tionary" readings several years ago. I remember coming away with a feeling of disgust. Daly seemed to pander towards the audience, employing revisionist candor that sent the female portion of the audience into hysterics (interesting correlation there). Suffice it to say, I'm not a fan of revisionist tinkering. I don't know what else I was trying to say. I was interrupted while writing this, so I'll just shut up now.

    By Blogger Dan, at 3:33 PM, January 31, 2005  

  • Dan, I guess the point is this. You feel that the use of the male pronoun and male-identified words to describe women do not in anyway oppress the female population. This is the root of the social context/modern usage argument. Only....a lot of us in said population do feel oppressed. So how do you explain that? Wait, I know. We're just being too sensitive and making too much out of too little. Uh-huh.

    I agree with you completely about the N word, as I made your same argument about it to Fyse. The important distinction between that word and the words I was describing in my post is that the usage of the N word--no matter how "inoffensive" it originally was intended to be--is no longer acceptable. Instead, African-Americans have decided on labels that they are comfortable with, i.e. African-American, and not what the powers that be have decided are comfortable for them.

    Perhaps we can take comfort in the evolution of the N word, and we'll see a day when more neutral words replace the male-centric words used to describe the human species.

    By Blogger Oz, at 7:19 PM, January 31, 2005  

  • Oz, yeah, I like words but I'm not a feminist. I don't get bent over the origins of words. They're just words... ~:^)

    By Blogger foxymama, at 10:40 PM, February 01, 2005  

  • Foxy, Huh? How can you be interested in the meaning of words but not their origins? The meaning of a word comes from its history/origin.

    By Blogger Oz, at 3:35 PM, February 02, 2005  

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